BookChat: James Longstreet and the American Civil War by Harold Knudsen

It’s the 159th anniversary of the battle of Chickamauga—a good showing by Jimmy Longstreet, so a good day to talk a little about a new book by Harold M. Knudsen, James Longstreet and the American Civil War: The Confederate General Who Fought the Next War, published by Savas Beatie. (You can find out more about the book here.) Knudsen is a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Army.

CM: James Longstreet was long considered one of the most controversial figures in the Civil War, but haven’t perceptions about him changed over the past few decades?

HK: Yes, I think they have in recent decades quite a bit. He was the target of a character assassination by Jubal Early, William Pendleton, and some writers in the Southern Historical Society Papers after 1870, when Lee died. These people saw him as a traitor for becoming a Republican and getting involved in politics in the Reconstruction decades, and so invented lies about his war record as retribution. They were in positions to drive narratives, and they did so quite fervently. This propaganda was (in varying degrees) brought into the early 20th century historiography about the war as well.

But, I believe that, looking at his work from the standpoint of what operations he executed in his time that became the correct method in the early 20th Century, I see that what he did and what he advised Lee and Bragg to do was correct, contrary to what these detractors said of him. This is what I explain in my book about him. I am completely 180 degrees out from some of the earlier critics. I hope that my thesis has made a dent in the popular narratives that have been simply accepted without any critical true professional military analysis put to them. To me, when I “sand away” the propaganda and take a look at the ORs/records left to us, the ground, and apply my training, military education of doctrine, and my own combat experience, I see someone who was innovative, forward thinking, and “modern” in his approach to accomplishing his mission.

CM: Is there a particular turning point in modern historiography that has influenced that shift?

HK: The 1960’s did have a fictitious media “positive” for Longstreet. The 1963 television movie Johnny Shiloh had a grand entrance of General Longstreet in the Western Theater that was quite opposite what one might have read about him decades earlier. I remember watching it a few times as a child, and so had learned his name and thought he must have been a great man from that simple imprint on my young mind. So did the 1975 historical novel Killer Angels, which cast Longstreet as the one Lee trusted the most, and who knew what he was doing.

Whether these forms of media single-handedly caused a major turning point might be overstating it, but I think after the 1950’s, most of the negative writing on Longstreet had worn out, and was no longer viewed as credible. Since then, no one of great literary stature carried the earlier negative propaganda forward. Catton, Foote, and Bearss, for example, were all pretty fair to Longstreet in their mentions of him, compared to their predecessors. Academics like Glenn Tucker were also drawing their own conclusions and seemed to have ignored the older common opinions.

In the 1980’s came the first more even-handed full biography on Longstreet, written by Bill Piston, and in the 1990’s another by Jeffrey Wert, also mostly fair to Longstreet. And of course, the 1975 Killer Angels, was made into an epic-style movie Gettysburg in 1993 with a very well-done James Longstreet played by then-popular actor Tom Berringer. That film, even more so than the print novel, probably improved Longstreet’s reputation as a good general in the eyes of the public who watched it.

The next was my work, done from the lens of mostly doctrinal analysis and comparison to other time period examples, to illuminate further—how and why—some of his executions of battles were on the right track, and were victories for the Confederacy. I believe my thesis and angle have made a difference and will continue to provide a clearer, more militarily informed understanding on Longstreet. Another recent author, Cory Pfarr, has taken to task the Gettysburg propaganda and holds it up to the records in a way no one has done, quite successfully refuting it.

HK: What attracted you to James Longstreet?

CM: My earliest recollection of when I heard the name General James Longstreet was in 1969 when I saw on TV the movie Johnny Shiloh. What attracted me to him was mention of him by my father, made to a Park Service ranger at the Fredericksburg National Battlefield in 1975. My family was listening to a ranger talk about the battle through an interpretation that seemed to focus more about General Jackson’s wing and said little of Longstreet’s wing. At the end, my father questioned him: “What Jackson did here was fine, but the real win of this battle was done by Longstreet, don’t you think?” And the ranger somewhat sheepishly agreed, which seemed odd to me he was not versed in this reality.

I asked my dad that night, why was this General Longstreet not talked about like you expected today? My dad said to me: “He was criticized after the war by some on his own side who no longer liked him, and so they hurt his reputation, and this has stuck for a long time.” Trusting the wisdom of my dad, as I always did, this became a great influence that piqued my interest at age ten. It stuck with me.

Once I had become an adult and commissioned officer, I followed my dad’s wisdom on this, and began to apply my own professional knowledge. I realized at two decades of Army experience, a treatment of Longstreet’s work through the lens of applying modern Army doctrine to what he did, would make for an interesting shot across the bow of the older opinions. The genesis of my book came from the thoughts I had in my Army career, which I eventually put to paper, but the attraction began more with my dad’s point about him in 1975.

CM: You argue that Longstreet understood the effectiveness of the tactical defense in a way most people didn’t. Can you briefly explain what you mean by that?

HK: In the Napoleonic Period, the smoothbore musket was only accurate out to about 80 yards, and this drove the tactics of the line formations. Leaders could best see and lead their formation out in the open, and they designed their movements to be able to best close with their opponent, calculating when to halt and fire a volley and when to advance. These tactics were offensive generally, and they permeated the doctrines for decades. Standing exposed, in the open, also took training to create units that followed the movement orders precisely, and got over the fear of being fired on. This aspect also led to a common opinion that the tactical offense should be the battle-winning method, but the reality was not so going up against a prepared defensive position of well-led troops taking advantage of some sort of protective works.

Longstreet, of course, received the education at West Point about the alleged superiority of the tactical offense, but in the Mexican War, he was part of an attack against a well-defended fortification, which resulted in his unit being repulsed and himself being wounded. I believe he came out of the Mexican War with an appreciation of this reality—that the tactical defense was actually superior to the tactical offense—when the attackers attempt direct approach in the open.

Once he became a general officer in the Civil War, he remained mindful of this reality, when many still did not. He saw the casualties the Confederates inflicted in the Union as they came directly at the Sunken Road position at Antietam and were only able to take the position by out flanking it. This lesson Longstreet brought forward to Fredericksburg, where he improved his tactical defense even more, having more than ten days to prepare it before the battle. The result was devastating for the Union Army. In fact, his defensive work at Fredericksburg was a fairly “modern,” doctrinally correct kill zone that has many of the elements taught today in the Army on how to prepare a kill zone.

CM: I’ve always thought Longstreet’s loss at the Wilderness was worse for Lee that Jackson’s loss was at Chancellorsville. One reason is because the Overland Campaign became defensive in nature for the Confederates—the exact sort of warfare Longstreet appreciated so well. How would you assess the loss on Longstreet at that moment and its impact on Lee?

HK: While I appreciate Stonewall Jackson as a leader who Lee decided could be a wing commander at the conclusion of his fight at Cedar Mountain, Jackson was still learning how to operate within the Army and command large numbers. His campaign in the Shenandoah Valley was an opportunity for him to practice tactics and forced marches to get the better of his opponents. Once he came to the Peninsula, however, he was back to square one on understanding how to fight in the context of a larger cohesive army. This new level, the operational level, he began to pick up during Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. His crowning operational movement was the flanking movement at Chancellorsville, although he only had two hours of light left to execute the tactical part—the attack. Of course Jackson went too far forward, thinking he might attempt to press in the dark. After realizing this was not going to be possible, he was wounded and died ten days later. Based on the timing, when Jackson arrived in the Union flank, he had done all he could do, stopped by nightfall.

Longstreet at Wilderness had much more daylight left once his attack went in and began to sweep Hancock and cause wider problems for that sector of Grant’s army. If Longstreet had not been wounded, he may very well have had the time to find the next angle to launch another push and put the Union forces opposite him on the horns of yet another set of tactical dilemmas in the late afternoon. Whether he could have pushed them across the river as some have suggested is not knowable, but also cannot be ruled out. His wounding effectively ended the momentum that day, and it was a severe shock to Robert E. Lee, who had always relied and needed Longstreet. He was the only one Lee had with the understanding and experience who operated on a high level. Ewell in 1864 was not emotionally steady enough in Lee’s estimation, and A. P. Hill was competent, but not healthy, suffering from chronic syphilis, now at its worst since contracting it when a West Point cadet.

Lee and Longstreet were quite close, and Lee was not as close to Jackson as he was to Longstreet. Popular history tells us Lee favored Jackson, but the record tells us otherwise. Lee dated Longstreet’s date of rank ahead of Jackson, making Longstreet senior, and Lee stayed and moved with Longstreet much of the time. Lee did this not only because he trusted Longstreet’s judgment, but because they had, as Longstreet described, a brotherly bond.

CM: We would misunderstand Longstreet if we said he was just a defensive general, wouldn’t we? I think of the final day at Second Manassas, his assault at Chickamauga, and the second day at the Wilderness as examples of Longstreet delivering powerful offensive blows. Can you briefly outline how you factor his offensive capabilities into your overall assessment of him?

HK: Yes, absolutely. Longstreet came into the war understanding the tactical defense was superior to the tactical offense in the conditions I have described in the earlier questions. But that does mean he was only defensive minded, as much of the historiography would have us believe. He understood the other side of the coin just as well. He knew that breaking a prepared defense meant the attacker had to maneuver to get at the defender with advantage, or have an overwhelming attacker-to-defender force ratio advantage. His work at Second Manassas is mostly the former situation–maneuver against an exposed flank. While he does not have greater numbers than Pope’s army overall, he put together a five-division attack that outnumbered the Union troops immediately facing him and put them to flight. At that point in the war, it was probably the largest cohesive attack made by a single commander controlling this many divisions on the North American Continent. It was not narrow, but it worked fine for the situation.

Of course then, we see, Lee orders him to attack a prepared defense with only two divisions and one supposed to be in support from another corps at Gettysburg on day two, and again on day three with three divisions. Neither attack plans work, and with both, Longstreet had advised Lee of other courses of action. Lee did not follow the advice. Then, at Chickamauga, Longstreet works a very modern version of the attack on a narrow front, in an environment where, if they had been opposed by a full division, they would have only had to close in the open for a short distance. He had planned at least a four-to-one attacker-to-defender force ratio. This worked quite well.

I would think these two large-scale, highly successful attacks well demonstrate Longstreet knew how to execute a strong offense as well as he did the defense. (As an aside on the Chickamauga attack, there is some confusion in the historiography regarding how his preparations came about. I will not go into that detail here, which is discussed in my book, but please also see the Longstreet Society 25th Anniversary Seminar videos on YouTube to watch the explanation on the ground. The first clip is about twelve minutes, and I go into this detail. The second clip is at the Brotherton Cabin, also about a dozen minutes, where I talk the formation; how it uncoiled, and what in the future it was similar to).

CM: A lot of scholars tend to situate Civil War generals in the context of Jomini or Clausewitz because they were 19th century theorists. You, instead, draw on a lot of modern army doctrine as a way to contextualize Longstreet. Can you tell us a bit about that approach?

HK: Scholars look through that lens because books by 19th-century theorists are what the officers of the Civil War had for education (not Clausewitz yet, so much, but definitely Jomini). It was their basis of understanding, and the scholars can read them for themselves, as well, just as Grant and Lee did when they were in school. But the truth is, these theories are not always applicable in every situation today. They were written before the Industrial Age, when tempo of war speed up, the scale of war grew, and the industrial part of the nation had to be included in war.

The modern military man, like me, knows how and what is changed from the time of Clausewitz and Jomini. We know why our doctrine is the way it is now, we know how it was developed, and we are trained and experienced with it. Hence, I know what works and does not work from both doctrine and personal experience. This is how I look at what Longstreet did. Some things he did are things I have experience with, too. I can see a modern kill zone he prepared, or a modern attack formation he arranged, like a modern surgeon would know if a 19th-century surgeon was doing something he would also do, or whether he was still doing something that in time doctors would realize was incorrect. Scholars, academics—anyone who writes about the Civil War without a professional military career in land warfare does not have this knowledge that I apply. My approach is simply the sum of all my education, experience, training, and combat duty applied to looking at General Longstreet. It is military analysis by way of Longstreet. I too must use the primary sources, but I can see things that the non-military professional cannot.

CM: The fact that you were able to make a lot of connections with modern doctrine suggested a particular relevance to me. It was an illuminating approach. How will that help people better understand Old Pete?

HK: First, I hope it dispels as false the propaganda that was created by some of his Confederate colleagues who did not like his involvement in politics. These detractors, at their worst, simply concocted lies about events at Gettysburg in order to paint Longstreet as a disloyal subordinate to Lee, which is simply not true. I use the explanation of Longstreet’s work by way of modern doctrine to show that he made many correct assessments during the war. The results prove this and, in the case of Gettysburg, proves his advice to Lee was correct, even though Lee chose not to heed the advice. This is the primary reason I wrote this, to correct wrongs about the man.

Second, I hope using professional modern military analysis shows readers how someone like me views battles, campaigns, strategic issues, fire support, logistics, and other facets of war to understand and explain the history. There are texts these participants left to us, but they don’t always mean the same thing to a reader today. So a historian’s job is explain texts in context of the time period. I am doing that, but I also bring in the context of military art and science. Thus, I believe I have an additional layer of knowledge to offer the reader that a college professor who teaches history for a living, for example, does not have.

CM: What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?

HK: Probably Porter Alexander’s book, Fighting for the Confederacy. This was just published recently, in 1989, because Alexander knew many things he wrote would not be well received in his life. So he left it on the shelf, and a century later, his descendants published it. I found Porter to be a very good artillerist, and also a good explainer of military art and science from his war experience, so I thought his judgements were sound. He was quite neutral and non-political in his prose. It was a great source to get a good honest, objective, and common sense man’s word about something. Of course Longstreet’s memoir and his OR entries were the most important sources, those are the coin of the realm in what Longstreet said and did, but Porter’s work was indispensable as another sounding board.

CM: How do you weigh Longstreet’s words as a source? He was famously defensive in his writings, particularly his later writings, because he was under assault by Early and the others. But that taints his work a little, too, doesn’t it? How do you navigate that?

HK: I weigh his memoir, the OR, and his contributions to Battles & Leaders and other public comments as the key primary sources because they are the record of what he said or wrote. Whether I personally agree with a quote or a piece of writing by Longstreet or any other participant in the war, or whether I think they are tainted a certain way, is of course an angle that has to be dealt with. I can caveat something defensive by saying he “probably said it this way to defend against the charge he did ‘x’ or was ‘y’ by a critic.” My job as an historian is to use these in as neutral a manner as possible when his comments might seem defensive about an issue. And let the reader decide what to think. My job as a professional military officer is to show where I see his work as having been the right way to do something IAW our doctrine today, for example, and then use something he said to show where he was indeed onto the way it’s done today. Porter Alexander liked to write in detail about the mechanics of how things were going, so I liked him as a source, for his ability to explain in this in detailed manner.

Take a look at what I said about Longstreet’s OR entry regarding how he planned for the attack at Chickamauga, which I discuss on p. 165. Longstreet said in his OR he was going to put Hood up with the other divisions and that this movement was not complete when the time came to attack. But when you read all the reports by the subordinates, they counter what Longstreet said. They tell us what really happened: they were in place at 7 a.m., ready to go, and attacked at 11. There were no units moving around between 7-11 a.m. on Sept. 20. So, what Longstreet wrote was not exactly accurate and not really true. Did he lie? And why?

It depends on how well we examine the rest of the context about what went on later. Longstreet wrote his OR entry a months after the battle, when Bragg was not sacking generals, reorganizing his army, and also not speaking to Longstreet anymore. So Longstreet wrote his report for Bragg, and he wrote what he intended to put up front, IAW with the scheme of an en echelon attack. But at 7 a.m., Longstreet knew the whole scheme had failed. There was no attack at 7 a.m., because of the failure of the orders to dissemination to the most-right unit. And Longstreet came up with something else for his wing: this attack column. In explaining to Bragg what he did, he simply said he intended to move Hood up, and deals with the fact he did not in order to build this column instead by saying the movement of Hood was not completed before the time to attack came. Is this a lie? Maybe. Is it a lie by omission? Maybe. Is he telling the truth? Maybe. He certainly was going to participate in the en echelon scheme if the other wing had done it right when it was supposed to start. All I can do in an example like this is state the facts (give the texts or where to find them) and then provide the larger contexts. After that, the reader has to decide what to think.

CM: Who, among your book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?

HK: Confederate General Bushrod Johnson. He is little known in the public eye, and there is only one biography written on him, done in 1970. Johnson was a Northern man from Ohio; his family were Quakers and abolitionists. Bushrod himself was an abolitionist before the war, and he had engaged in sneaking Negro slaves over the river into his state before he went to West Point. He was good friends with Sherman at West Point, and they wrote on and off before the war. Longstreet seemed to like him and had his division spearhead the attack column at Chickamauga. Johnson seemed to be a very kind individual. Case in point, when his division advanced onto the Brotherton property, Johnson, walking behind the first echelon, saw the wounded colonel of the 100th Illinois falling to his knees, bleeding profusely from the head. Johnson went immediately to the man’s aid, called a litter for him, and ordered his removal to his surgeon right away. Quite a chivalrous act to take the time to care for one’s enemy even while his division was pressing the best large-scale attack made by the a Confederate army in the west.

CM: What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?

HK: This changes as people ask me about something, and I re-engage with a section to explain it for a roundtable or a post on social media or an article. Lately, I seem to have a lot of questions about my passage that criticizes Lee for not having a proper military objective for his corps commanders to go after in his invasion of Pennsylvania. This point seems completely foreign to readers, which is good. I expected that. Most books about Gettysburg are all focused on the tactics of what happened, and some try to offer how better tactics and execution of the tactics would have won the battle for Lee. I say that is not true. We have no way of knowing that, and my point about what a military objective does, is to keep the plan on track in a timely manner toward the achievement of some tangible goal that would bring the most benefit to winning the war. Without going into the details of how I explain this in my book over the course of the four chapters where I deal with events in Pennsylvania, the military truth is that fighting a battle at Gettysburg was a mistake. It was a place of no use to Lee, and under those circumstances, Meade had all the advantages. And looking at the operational level of what was a better place to go and gain benefit is what a professional military mind looks at.

Anyway, I am enjoying that passage lately causing people to stretch their thinking away from the old narratives and common opinions, and consider looking at the operational level problem set, which I think they find new and original.

CM: What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?

HK: I will answer this as part of the previous answer I gave about what Lee should have done in Pennsylvania instead of let himself get sucked into a battle at Gettysburg. I like to look at the terrain around Chambersburg, PA, along the route that Ewell took as he moved gradually toward Carlisle and Harrisburg. I see Harrisburg as the best place to declare as an objective in Lee’s campaign, and had he declared that place during the planning with in VA, I think he would have been up there with his army by mid-June. This might have opened up all kind of possibilities for him in the Operational and even strategic-political realms of benefit far better than what actually happened.

CM: What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?

HK: “Independent Command.” This is a phrase that exists in a fair amount of historiography about the war, which is not a real military term. Independent command implies that someone has no higher commander he reports to. This is not true. All commanders have a boss and must follow their orders. I do not know the exact origins of who coined it, and when, but for the purposes of studying General Longstreet, it is found in the first biography on him by H. J. Eckenrode in the 1930’s, and also the work by Jeffery Wert in the 1990’s. Both books have a chapter called “Independent Command.” I assume Wert copied Eckenrode in doing this in his book.

One possibility of the origin in the use of it by these two writers is Moxley Sorrel, one of Longstreet’s staff members. Sorrel used it a number of times in his memoir; hence Eckenrode probably got it from him, since he cited Sorrel quite a bit in his book. Sorrell was not a trained military man; he was in banking before the war, and he may have thought that when Longstreet’s corps was at Suffolk, for example, this was somehow an independent command due to the distance away from the rest of the ANV. This is not true. It matters not how far away a part of an army is from the commander, the distant portion is still part of the organization and, in Longstreet’s case, his commanding officer is still Robert E. Lee.

In Eckenrode’ s book, he used the phrase to paint a narrative that Longstreet was unsuccessful at this type of command, because the operations were away from close proximity to Lee, and he did not have Lee’s close supervision (and Freeman got on this bandwagon in his books, too, having cited Eckenrode). This of course is not true.

Aside from that falsehood, the issues I have is that there is no such thing as an “independent command” in the US Army. No such form of command exists in the manuals and regulations that I learned from in the schools I attended in my career, nor had I ever heard of such type of command in my career. There is only “command” in the US Army. Obviously, I have seen writers in the past use this phrase, and I make some mention of its incorrectness in my book, but I would like to get this question from people at my talks so that I can go into a some greater detail than the footnote about it I have in my book. (Perhaps if there is a reprint down the road, I will write an appendix on this phrase that I have an issue with to more fully explain the problems with it).

7 Responses to BookChat: James Longstreet and the American Civil War by Harold Knudsen

  1. Read his memoir and found it fascinating. I will definitely try and read more books about Longstreet.

  2. Great, entertaining interview and substantive discussion. I have always felt Longstreet was an excellent general ( compare him to AP Hill as a Corps commander) and received unjustified criticism. To put a massive army in place from many locations for the July 2 attack required time.

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